The biggest immediate threat to Lithuania comes not from Russia, but from another former Soviet republic: Belarus.
That’s the warning from Audra Plepyté, Lithuania’s ambassador to the United States. She says that if the autocratic regime of Alexander Lukashenko isn’t neutralized soon, all of Europe will ultimately pay the price.
“We have historical ties with Belarus, and we’d like it to be a democratic country with strong protection for human rights,” Plepyté told the Washington Diplomat in a recent interview. “But last year’s elections were not free.”
On July 21, Plepyté used her embassy on Sixteenth Street to inaugurate the bipartisan Friends of Belarus Congressional Caucus. The provocative event was highlighted by the presence of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the 38-year-old opposition leader and widely regarded winner of her country’s August 2020 presidential elections.
That wasn’t the first time the Lithuanian Embassy has hosted a pro-democracy event on behalf of its oppressed neighbors in Belarus. On Feb, 6, officials there—along with those of the adjacent Polish Embassy on Sixteenth Street NW—jointly held an evening of solidarityto call attention to the cause of freedom in Belarus.
Both Belarus and Lithuania are former Soviet republics, but the neighbors took dramatically different paths after the USSR’s collapse in 1991. Lithuania, a modern democracy and member of the European Union, today scores 90 on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 index, while authoritarian Belarus earns a score of only 11.
It was Lithuania, of course, that gave Tsikhanouskaya political asylum after she fled Belarus. In the year since those elections—almost universally regarded as fraudulent—in which Lukashenko supposedly won a sixth term in office, massive protests have led to a security crackdown.
More than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands beaten, and according to the human rights groups Viasna, 659 political prisoners remained jailedin Belarus. Several of them have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, often exceeding 10 years.
But what really shocked Europe was the May 23 hijacking and forced landingof a Ryanair jet carrying 26-year-old dissident Roman Protasevich from Athens to Vilnius. A fake bomb scare forced pilots to divert the plane to Minsk, where Protasevich and his girlfriend were promptly taken off the aircraft and put in prison.
“I couldn’t believe such a thing could happen in the middle of Europe,” she said. “As a consequence, the EU issued sanctions against Belarus. But what we really noticed lately this summer, especially after the plane hijacking, were these migrant flows from the border of Belarus to Lithuania. It’s been unprecedented.”
So far this year, more than 4,000 migrants—mostly people from Iraq and various African countries—have been pushed over the Belorusian border to Lithuania. Videos released by the Lithuanian government appear to show guards dressed in riot gear and physically pushing refugees toward Lithuania.
“Why do they go to Belarus? We suspect that the government is doing it. Lukashenko has said they will not protect the borders from illegal migrants,” said Plepyté. “What we see is these very well-organized groups are being escorted to the Lithuanian border. We regard this as a hybrid attack against Lithuania and the whole EU. It’s using migrants to put pressure on Lithuania and other EU countries to reconsider our sanctions and policies.”
Plepyté said her country of 2.8 million is trying to prevent flows of “so-called tourist flights” from Baghdad to Minsk, adding that Lithuanian officials are talking to their counterparts in the Iraqi government to resolve the problem.
“We’re working very closely with the US and with other European countries to support a free and democratic Belarus,” said Plepyté, a career diplomat who was appointed to her current job in late May. Before coming to Washington, she served in Brussels, Madrid and New York, where she spent four years as Lithuania’s permanent representative to the United Nations.
Although Belarus takes up much of her time, Plepyté said the focus of her job as Lithuania’s ambassador is strengthening political, defense and economic ties with the United States. There’s also a relatively large diaspora here, with some one million people of Lithuanian origin concentrated in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York.
To that end, she’d like to boost Lithuanian exports to the United States. The country is a high-tech leader, with heavy US investment in biotech and life sciences. Among other things, Lithuania produces the strongest laser in the world.
In 2024, the Lithuanian Embassy will celebrate 100 years of continuous operation. In fact, it’s one of the oldest functioning embassies in Washington at the same location.
“Even during Soviet times, we always regarded ourselves as occupied,” Plepyté said. “That’s why I’m very proud to work in this embassy here in DC, because this embassy functioned the whole time thanks to the US non-recognition policy. Our diplomats continually fought for Lithuania’s independence and freedom. That gave us hope that one day we’d be free.”